Opportune witch hunt

MICK WALLACE was going to tell us today how it was going to be, but the Ceann Comhairle had other ideas.

The Wexford TD had asked permission to address the Dáil about his tax issues, but Sean Barrett decreed that the request fell outside the boundaries of the rules.

Wallace apparently wants to straighten out a few things about the €2.1m Vat debt, which arose from a false declaration of his accrual back in 2008. Now he will have to find another way to attempt to stitch back his tattered credibility.

Since the news broke last week, he has been under mounting pressure to resign his seat. After initially sitting on their hands, his colleagues in the technical group have lined up to dish it out to him. The collective wail emanating from Leinster House is, “Go, go now, for the love of God, go.”

But are the calls fair? Is he being castigated for debasing standards in politics, or is the cacophony more to do with witch hunting, and grasping for political points? And is Wallace being subjected to treatment that would have your average lawyer screaming blue murder if it was visited on Joe or Josephine public?

By the standards of Irish politics, there is no case for Wallace to resign. For example, nobody suggested for a moment that Willie O’Dea should resign his seat when he was exposed in Feb 2010 for signing a false affidavit. The matter had its origins in an attempt by O’Dea to associate an opponent with prostitution.

There was no question of Beverly Flynn resigning her seat when the Supreme Court found in 2005 she had the reputation she deserved for flogging offshore tax evasive schemes.

Michael Lowry toughed out the Moriarty report last year exposing him as corrupt. He had also admitted to evading tax.

The late Liam Lawlor hung onto his seat through three stints in Mountjoy for contempt.

Then there were the Ansbacher account of Fianna Fáil TDs Denis Foley and an illegal offshore account of Michael Collins.

Now, the body politic and beyond are demanding the flaxen-haired head of Wallace.

Was his evasion in the same league as that of some of the above? He claims he prepared the false declaration in order to stave off company bankruptcy. Two years later, he walked into Revenue with his hands up. It sounds like need rather than greed informed the behaviour.

The Revenue apparently believes that his case does not warrant prosecution. Why then should he be the focus of the cacophony of righteous indignation?

Of course, there is a case that different standards apply to him as opposed to the other transgressors. Wallace entered politics wearing the colours of truth and honesty. He claimed to represent a new form of politics, in which the sleeven was eliminated and the requirements of the constituency played second fiddle to that of the national interest.

To be fair to him, his parliamentary performance has lived up to that standard. He is a frequent contributor to Dáil debates, and has been to the fore in holding the Government to account for its policy choices at a time when many are living on the edge of want. Not for him the role of constituency king, impervious to criticism as long as voters are happy that the parish pump is being attended.

So by his own high standards on entering politics, his credibility looks shot. A Lowry-type can sit back and let notions about standards and responsibilities wash over him. Wallace can’t do that with a straight face. He has no business sitting in the Dáil for the sake of it, something plenty of others do as a matter of course. If he can’t realistically see a way in which to retrieve his credibility, there seems little point to his continuance as a national politician.

However, the righteous indignation generated by his case has strayed into the territory of witch hunt. Newspaper comment over the last week has been freighted with comparisons between Wallace’s case and that of the garlic man, Paul Begley.

Politicians have also stuck their oar in effectively to suggest that Wallace should be treated to a different standard under the law than that which applies to all other citizens.

The minister for social protection, Joan Burton, said on RTÉ’s The Week In Politics that the Revenue Commissioners needs to give a full explanation on how it reached a settlement with Wallace. Is she inferring the Revenue should give reasons as to why it doesn’t prosecute all cases, or is it just Wallace that she believes should be subjected to this? Or is she just using the occasion to get a political dig in at a time when her party is under huge pressure from the opposition?

In recent years, the Revenue has shown itself perfectly willing to go after politicians when circumstances demand it.

Within days of Bertie Ahern giving his infamous interview to Bryan Dobson in Sep 2006, a taxman was writing to inquire about his revelations of being in receipt of monies for which there was no record of payment of tax.

Equally, the Revenue went after former TD Michael Collins about his off-shore account. The idea that Wallace was treated favourably is absurd.

Comparisons with the garlic man are even more ludicrous. Begley was jailed for six years last March for perpetrating a Vat fraud between 2003 and 2007 on the importation of garlic. He only put his hands up when he was rumbled by the taxman. His fraud had implications for the Revenue, his competitors and, possibly, customers. The sentence was harsh, and may be successfully appealed, but it did signal a different societal attitude to tax fraud.

Wallace, by contrast, made one false declaration, which was completely wrong, but ensured that around 60 of his employees stayed off the dole for an extra couple of years. When he realised he would not be in a position to make a late payment, he confessed his transgression. Comparisons between the two cases are both lazy and obnoxious.

Wallace has a decision to make on his future. It’s difficult to see how he can retrieve the credibility that would allow him to continue in politics on the elevated platform on which he ran for office.

However, he doesn’t deserve to be pressurised by a body politic, the majority of which would apply different standards to one of their own. Neither should the integrity of the Revenue be questioned merely to score political points. If this story is about Wallace dragging down standards, then he’s certainly not alone in doing so.

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